As regular readers and listeners will know, here at Hypnogoria Towers we love a good ghost story. Everyone has something that consistently brings the fear; for example, for some it's anything creepy-crawly related, for others it's demons and devils. However for me, it is ghost stories that have consistently delivered the most unnerving cinematic experiences over years, and indeed in an article on the most frightening things I've seen most are tales of the supernatural. Now one of these is (of course) the infamous Ghostwatch by Stephen Volk of which I have spoken about at length here, a brilliant TV play that proved that a classic ghost story does not have to be rooted in the past but can be chillingly contemporary.
So then when I saw Mr Volk praising a new small British movie, and hailing it as "not only creepy, but genuinely haunting". And so if the man who famously - some would say notoriously - terrified the entire nation thinks a movie impressively inspires creeping dread then that was recommendation enough for me to rush out a buy a copy. Furthermore I scheduled my maiden viewing of The Casebook of Eddie Brewer for Halloween night, in the hopes that it would deliver all the chills for the spookiest night of the year.
And did the movie deliver? Well, mentioning no one names, some one stayed up late afterwards that Halloween night with every light in the house burning...
So then what is The Casebook of Eddie Brewer all about? Well it's the tale of a ghost hunter, the eponymous Eddie (played by Ian Brooker), who investigates alleged paranormal incidents, funding his endeavors with a regular guest slot on a local radio show and writing books on his experiences. Currently Eddie is being followed around by a documentary crew who are doing a film about him, and hence much of the footage we see come through their lenses as we see Eddie going about his business, investigating various cases in his home city of Birmingham.
Now then, while the above sounds like the usual found footage shenanigans, I can assure you that this movie is more fly-on-the-wall documentary style than the motion sickness inducing running about in the dark shaky cam routine. And while most of the scenes are drawn from the film crew's footage, it's not a full mockmentary either as we do get scenes from other sources, such as Eddie's own cameras he using in investigations, CCTV, or even playing out in 'real' life. No doubt there will be some folk who will be irritated it doesn't stick fully with the documentary mode, but personally I found this collage approach to work very well. Firstly it allows us not only difference perspective on the drama but also gives the movie are broader tonal and stylistic palette. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it frees up the narrative from the storytelling and plot logic corners found footage movies often get stuck in, while at the same time retaining the sense of reality and intimacy of a real documentary.
And a sense of reality is important for ghost stories to be effective: whether on the screen or on the page, the teller of a tale of phantoms and spectres must convince the audience that there are such things. And hence, like many other classic ghost stories, The Casebook of Eddie Brewer is a slow burning affair, beginning slowly and not piling on the frights for the get go. In many respects, director and writer Andrew Spencer follows the rules set down by the great MR James -
Let us be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.
From The Introduction to Ghosts & Marvels (1924)
And not unlike many a tale from the good Doctor himself, there is a certain amount of quiet humour in the early stages of this movie. Not outright gaggery, just occasional moments of the subtle kind of comedy that comes from the quirks and foibles of real people, the wry observances of everyday little eccentricities that pepper the work of Mike Leigh. And Spencer, like James, uses these little moments featuring the kind of people and situations we meet in everyday life to settle us into the tale before carefully introducing the uncanny and building an atmosphere of dread.
And that isn't the only links to classic British terrors either, for The Casebook of Eddie Brewer has an approach and tone that is very similar to such 1970s small screen classics such Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape or the recently re-released Dead of Night series. Rather than the ghost-train jumps and special effects fireworks we find in many modern Hollywood ghost stories, here we have a more restrained, more literate approach, one that understand than you can create a far more frightening tale through good, intelligent drama than just the usual camera tricks. And like Mr Volk's Ghostwatch, the 1990's incarnation of this mode of British ghost story, The Casebook of Eddie Brewer crafts a carefully layered story, one that becomes cumulatively more unnerving as each element is revealed.
Aside from a similar structural approach, interestingly The Casebook of Eddie Brewer also shares some background DNA with Ghostwatch - the haunting of Foxhill Drive in Mr Volk's opus drew heavily on the real life case of the Enfield poltergeist which was investigated by Maurice Grosse, and it is Grosse who provided the inspiration for the character of Eddie. Like his real world model, Eddie has entered the world of paranormal investigation through a personal tragedy and similarly while he thinks there is often something inexplicable in the cases he investigates, he has no firm idea what might be the case of the strange phenomena.
And this gives us some interesting dynamics for the central character, and something of fresh perspective for this kind of story. All too often in these kind of stories investigators of the weird and strange are either dyed-in-the-wool believers or sceptics heading for a fall, and hence it's refreshing to have a character who bristles at being labelled a credulous believer in spirits yet is frustrated when his researches aren't taken seriously. This is a man who would like to believe but also is firmly wedded to investigating scientifically and indeed cannot believe until he himself has the evidence. Eddie is a brilliant character, superbly played by Ian Brooker. While he is best known for his audio work - probably best known as the voice of Wayne Foley in The Archers and for his appearances in many Big Finish audio dramas - he's more than at home in front the camera, and his performance as Eddie is absolutely magnetic. His Eddie is natural, believable and highly watchable - a man who soon captures not only our attention but also sympathies. - which is just as well as Eddie's investigations are going to lead to some very dark places...
Now then, a common problem with the screen ghost story, particularly in a feature length production, is delivering a satisfying ending. Any competent director can soon create an atmosphere of unease and build into moments of genuine fright, however bring the actual narrative to a conclusion is often problematic. A common trouble is that when you set out to deliver a big finale, you end up crossing a line into the realm of total fantasy and/or a welter of special effects that ultimately loses all the fear and dread built up so far. Basically while you may generate shudders in the audience with something such as a shadowy figure appearing in a doorway, once the ghosts are throwing furniture around, CGI phantasms are flying round the screen or people are possessed and levitating, you've crossed a point where the supernatural in the story and all the carefully built-up dread can be banished by the viewers thinking 'oh, that would never happen!'. Conversely, some screen ghost stories go the other way - they avoid the credibility bomb of never fully having a supernatural confrontation, but often instead flounder in with an inconclusive finale, which sometime can be so subtle as to have the audience wondering if the makers are pulling a Scooby Doo on them and there wasn't any ghosts in the first place.
However The Casebook of Eddie Brewer neatly avoids both these pitfalls. Yes, it slowly builds up to a climactic finale but as intense as the final leg of the investigation is, it never rockets over the top, retaining and indeed cashing in on all the atmosphere of fear and dread the movie has built up. However there's also an element of mystery remaining, for this climax is followed by a succinct little coda where we learn of the aftermath - a few brief scenes that raise some tantalizing and quietly chilling questions.
Now for those who like everything tied up with a neat bow, the finale may irritate by leaving some threads hanging. However the ending is in keeping with the themes of the film, for at the close, like Eddie himself would be, we are left with the problem of interpreting what exactly has occurred. However there are more than enough clues and hints for the intelligent viewer to play with, allowing us to fill in the space with our own speculations that may raise a shudder or two by themselves.
The Casebook of Eddie Brewer is an impressively little movie, although I fear its intelligent dramatic take on the ghost story will be probably too nuanced and carefully paced for the usual horror movie crowd. However for those who appreciate that kind of well-thought out explorations of the fantastic we find in the works of Nigel Kneale, John Wyndham or Stephen Volk or enjoy the ghost stories in the classic British tradition, this is a movie you'll want on your shelf to revisit on dark winter nights. I'm somewhat reticent to invoke that over-used word 'classic', so I'll just say that my bluray of The Casebook of Eddie Brewer is going to sit on the same shelf as my copies of Ghostwatch, The Stone Tape, The Woman In Black (1989) and the Complete BBC Ghost Stories For Christmas...
You can buy the movie here - THE CASEBOOK OF EDDIE BREWER OFFICIAL SITE
And there's a great interview with star Ian Brooker over here at Ginger Nuts of Horror
JIM MOON, 11th November 2013